Technique, personality and values. (Or: why I wouldn’t ever do ‘all hands up’.)

There have been some superb blogs and discussions recently exploring classroom practice -the specifics of techniques and the issues that surround implementing ideas. I work with these issues every day and find it endlessly fascinating exploring the interplay of teacher characteristics and the routines and interactions that play out during lessons of all kinds. Teachers have so much in common in the challenges they face and the techniques they use and, at the same time, teachers can be hugely successful in multiple different ways, expressing their personalities and idiosyncrasies as they go.

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how the idea of a technique in teaching interacts with each teacher’s personality and values. When you codify them or write them down, a technique can appear to be a technocratic procedure; rigid in some way. However, in practice, they never are because they are always being enacted by a complex human being. In general, I never really worry about techniques being too rigid – because teachers are too variable, organic and spontaneous for that to happen. If anything, I find that precision in defining and using a technique has huge benefits; it’s often ill-defined techniques that get distorted into ineffective practices.

So, for me, across this array of teacher variability – and perhaps because of it – it is perfectly sensible for schools to seek to implement commonly understood techniques that are known to deal with commonly experienced challenges. We can’t and don’t need to reinvent teaching every time we talk about it. We’re not *that* different. See this posts for more on this point…

So, what’s my problem?

Against this background of being pro-technique, I found I’ve been challenged on a few fronts by recent posts, particularly those by Pritesh Raichura. He’s written an impressive series of blogs about the specifics of his practice, mainly in relation to questioning, checking for listening, securing attention and checking for understanding. I think ‘checks for listening’ is a superb concept that hasn’t been expressed as clearly as this to me before.

I should say right away that I have huge admiration for Pritesh – by any measure he’s an astonishing teacher – and not only because of his class’ feat of securing 100% 9-9 in Science GCSE last year – just crazy for a comprehensive school intake. He’s inspiring, engaging, driven, kind… I could gush more. In theory, given his success, he’s got good cause to say ‘teach like me because it works – look!’. However, two specific techniques I’m provoked by are ‘all hands up cold calling’ – to the extent that ‘no hands up cold calling’ would be outlawed – and the ‘heads down, fist on head’ method of signalling a response without anyone else seeing. Pritesh lays out the rationale with some gusto. (Read his blogs for the details).

But, here’s the thing, even though I follow the logic, I still don’t want to teach like Pritesh does. His blogs trigger the arms-folded, tutting, eye-rolling staffroom cynic in me. (A bit of that is in all of us right?) But why is that? I’ve been thinking about it over and over… and find I’m wrestling with my own resistance in ways I see other teachers doing when I’m the one advocating techniques to them.

I think there are three main areas.

Personality issues: Techniques are not neutral methods; they require a form of performance and a certain type of culture to surround them. When Pritesh advocates ‘all hands up’ and ‘fist on head’ – I just think, God no, how weird and awkward. My response is akin to being asked to dance a samba – I’d be all Tony Adams; stiff and embarrassing. It’s just not me. I love a bit of choral work – call and response – but only here and there. I’m rubbish at party games and communal singing. I have to fight my strong and natural preference to be alone just to look people in the eye. It’s an act I can do but don’t push it!

This is not a rational response – but it is a legitimate one. If I have to form new habits, they have to be ones I can be relaxed doing – so I need a really good reason. And here, I don’t think the reasons are remotely strong enough to do something I find embarrassing. It’s like when the TLAC team promote the ‘sprinkling magic dust’ finger waggle or finger clicks to show respect for a speaker….. I just ain’t ever doing that; I’d cringe to death. That’s who I am.

Technical issues: I’m just not convinced that the theatrics of ‘fist on head’ or ‘all hands up’ are justified when other options are available that seem superior. For example, if I want to see that everyone is engaged and has an answer – I have white boards. MWBs show students are listening and engaged and also show you their answer – all at one go. And, the way I do my cold calling – there is absolutely no question that I’m expecting everyone to think and be ready to answer: it’s in the scanning, the pausing, the intensity of the silent pause and the absolute routine habit that, yes, I will ask anyone. I can’t think why asking everyone to put a hand up would be better than just getting them looking ready.. it’s just another non-verbal cue with the same level of proof – ie you need to actually ask to find out what they’re thinking. A facial expression of ‘readiness’ is good enough for me.

And, of course, it’s not any one technique that does the work -it’s the combination:

Values issues: This might be the main thing. I just don’t believe that these routines represent a higher standard of engagement. It’s not the kind of class I want to run on principle. I can’t help think that the ultimate high expectation is that students engage in a mature way in the classroom exchange – they listen, think and participate because they want to learn. They learn to self-regulate and use their agency to support their learning. That’s the goal and if I haven’t achieved it, that’s because we’re not there yet but it’s where we’re heading. How would I teach adults or sixth formers – with all hands up and fists-on-heads? I don’t think so.

So, in the ideal situation, for me, all hands up would just seem silly. I’d feel silly. If we’re treating students as young adults – ‘let’s be grown-up!’ – then all those routines seem kind of childish – to me. Again -even though you don’t see these methods in most very high achieving classrooms – those are my personal, honest thoughts. It’s how I feel – just me, without suggesting that’s how anyone else should feel. So when I resist, I feel I do so with reason.

Some might read this as an attempt to trash Pritesh’s ideas – but it’s not that at all. I’ve watched countless teachers do things that i think are awesome – when they do them – knowing full well I couldn’t and wouldn’t do them myself or promote them for others to do. I fully appreciate than in Pritesh’ hands, all the theatrics and routines and interpersonal dynamics of these methods are completely compatible with his personality and values. It’s all kind of joyful and upbeat as well as being serious and focused. And, beyond any doubt, they work on a technical level. But it’s just not me.

The question that arises from all this, is how we move forward as a community of teachers? If a Pritesh arrived at my school when I was fully enjoying life doing things my way, with good levels of success, and said we’re banning no hands up cold calling in favour of all hands up – I’d have all kinds of issues with it. I would actually just refuse, I would see that as unreasonable. If forced, I’d rebel quietly for as long as I could and perhaps comply if someone came to check… but that’s not good is it! Ultimately it wouldn’t be sustainable. I’d ask about the evidence … and sure enough, there isn’t any to show these specific forms of techniques work better than others that do a similar job. However, I wouldn’t be saying ‘anything goes’, leave me alone. I’d be saying ‘I have other effective methods that I’m more comfortable doing and feel I do better’. My techniques are also precise techniques with a rationale – making everyone think and engage.

This thought process has certainly helped me understand the feelings other teachers have when I present them with my utterly compelling case for using no hands up cold calling, think pair share and show-me boards. Some teachers find all three of these techniques absolutely excruciating to perform. They are alien to them. Some teachers find call and response choral work kills them inside. They avoid techniques that make them feel awkward in the same way I”d run a mile from ‘fists on heads’. If I’m to coach them, we need to do a lot of work on the rationale, on the values and on the alternative techniques. I might also find some ‘comfort zone break-out’ is needed in relation so some personalities. But I’m not going to force them to dance on the table against their will – so to speak! They are who they are and I have to work with them in all their human wholeness. That’s the joy of it.

Thanks again to Pritesh for his recent blog contributions – I haven’t been provoked to think so hard about my teaching ideas in ages. I’ve met so many teachers who are inspired by what he does – as I am – and I’m sure there will be plenty of people super keen to try out his ideas. I’m just going to be the old fart in the corner and say ‘no thanks’!

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